English-Video.net comment policy

The comment field is common to all languages

Let's write in your language and use "Google Translate" together

Please refer to informative community guidelines on TED.com

TEDxStanford

Dustin Schroeder: How we look kilometers below the Antarctic ice sheet

Filmed
Views 616,902

Antarctica is a vast and dynamic place, but radar technologies -- from World War II-era film to state-of-the-art miniaturized sensors -- are enabling scientists to observe and understand changes beneath the continent's ice in unprecedented detail. Join radio glaciologist Dustin Schroeder on a flight high above Antarctica and see how ice-penetrating radar is helping us learn about future sea level rise -- and what the melting ice will mean for us all.

- Radio glaciologist
Dustin Schroeder develops and uses geophysical radar to study Antarctica, Greenland and the icy moons of Jupiter. Full bio

I'm a radio glaciologist.
00:12
That means that I use radar
to study glaciers and ice sheets.
00:15
And like most glaciologists right now,
00:19
I'm working on the problem of estimating
00:21
how much the ice is going to contribute
to sea level rise in the future.
00:23
So today, I want to talk to you about
00:28
why it's so hard to put good numbers
on sea level rise,
00:30
and why I believe that by changing
the way we think about radar technology
00:33
and earth-science education,
00:37
we can get much better at it.
00:39
When most scientists
talk about sea level rise,
00:42
they show a plot like this.
00:44
This is produced using ice sheet
and climate models.
00:45
On the right, you can see
the range of sea level
00:48
predicted by these models
over the next 100 years.
00:51
For context, this is current sea level,
00:54
and this is the sea level
00:57
above which more than 4 million people
could be vulnerable to displacement.
00:58
So in terms of planning,
01:02
the uncertainty in this plot
is already large.
01:04
However, beyond that, this plot comes
with the asterisk and the caveat,
01:07
"... unless the West Antarctic
Ice Sheet collapses."
01:12
And in that case, we would be talking
about dramatically higher numbers.
01:15
They'd literally be off the chart.
01:19
And the reason we should take
that possibility seriously
01:21
is that we know from the geologic
history of the Earth
01:24
that there were periods in its history
01:27
when sea level rose
much more quickly than today.
01:29
And right now, we cannot rule out
01:32
the possibility of that
happening in the future.
01:34
So why can't we say with confidence
01:37
whether or not a significant portion
of a continent-scale ice sheet
01:40
will or will not collapse?
01:46
Well, in order to do that, we need models
01:48
that we know include all of the processes,
conditions and physics
01:50
that would be involved
in a collapse like that.
01:54
And that's hard to know,
01:57
because those processes
and conditions are taking place
01:58
beneath kilometers of ice,
02:01
and satellites, like the one
that produced this image,
02:03
are blind to observe them.
02:05
In fact, we have much more comprehensive
observations of the surface of Mars
02:07
than we do of what's beneath
the Antarctic ice sheet.
02:12
And this is even more challenging
in that we need these observations
02:15
at a gigantic scale
in both space and time.
02:19
In terms of space, this is a continent.
02:22
And in the same way that in North America,
02:25
the Rocky Mountains, Everglades
and Great Lakes regions are very distinct,
02:27
so are the subsurface
regions of Antarctica.
02:31
And in terms of time, we now know
02:34
that ice sheets not only evolve over
the timescale of millennia and centuries,
02:36
but they're also changing
over the scale of years and days.
02:40
So what we want is observations
beneath kilometers of ice
02:44
at the scale of a continent,
02:48
and we want them all the time.
02:50
So how do we do this?
02:53
Well, we're not totally blind
to the subsurface.
02:54
I said in the beginning
that I was a radio glaciologist,
02:58
and the reason that that's a thing
03:01
is that airborne ice-penetrating radar
is the main tool we have
03:03
to see inside of ice sheets.
03:07
So most of the data used by my group
is collected by airplanes
03:09
like this World War II-era DC-3,
03:13
that actually fought
in the Battle of the Bulge.
03:15
You can see the antennas
underneath the wing.
03:17
These are used to transmit
radar signals down into the ice.
03:20
And the echos that come back
contain information
03:24
about what's happening inside
and beneath the ice sheet.
03:26
While this is happening,
03:30
scientists and engineers
are on the airplane
03:31
for eight hours at a stretch,
03:34
making sure that the radar's working.
03:35
And I think this is actually
a misconception
03:37
about this type of fieldwork,
03:40
where people imagine
scientists peering out the window,
03:42
contemplating the landscape,
its geologic context
03:45
and the fate of the ice sheets.
03:48
We actually had a guy from the BBC's
"Frozen Planet" on one of these flights.
03:50
And he spent, like, hours
videotaping us turn knobs.
03:53
(Laughter)
03:57
And I was actually watching the series
years later with my wife,
03:59
and a scene like this came up,
and I commented on how beautiful it was.
04:03
And she said, "Weren't you
on that flight?"
04:07
(Laughter)
04:09
I said, "Yeah, but I was looking
at a computer screen."
04:11
(Laughter)
04:14
So when you think
about this type of fieldwork,
04:15
don't think about images like this.
04:17
Think about images like this.
04:19
(Laughter)
04:21
This is a radargram, which is
a vertical profile through the ice sheet,
04:22
kind of like a slice of cake.
04:25
The bright layer on the top
is the surface of the ice sheet,
04:27
the bright layer on the bottom
is the bedrock of the continent itself,
04:30
and the layers in between
are kind of like tree rings,
04:33
in that they contain information
about the history of the ice sheet.
04:36
And it's amazing
that this works this well.
04:39
The ground-penetrating
radars that are used
04:42
to investigate infrastructures of roads
or detect land mines
04:44
struggle to get through
a few meters of earth.
04:47
And here we're peering
through three kilometers of ice.
04:49
And there are sophisticated, interesting,
electromagnetic reasons for that,
04:52
but let's say for now that ice
is basically the perfect target for radar,
04:56
and radar is basically
the perfect tool to study ice sheets.
05:00
These are the flight lines
05:04
of most of the modern airborne
radar-sounding profiles
05:05
collected over Antarctica.
05:09
This is the result
of heroic efforts over decades
05:10
by teams from a variety of countries
and international collaborations.
05:13
And when you put those together,
you get an image like this,
05:17
which is what the continent
of Antarctica would look like
05:20
without all the ice on top.
05:23
And you can really see the diversity
of the continent in an image like this.
05:25
The red features
are volcanoes or mountains;
05:30
the areas that are blue
would be open ocean
05:32
if the ice sheet was removed.
05:35
This is that giant spatial scale.
05:36
However, all of this
that took decades to produce
05:39
is just one snapshot of the subsurface.
05:42
It does not give us any indication
of how the ice sheet is changing in time.
05:46
Now, we're working on that,
because it turns out
05:51
that the very first radar observations
of Antarctica were collected
05:53
using 35 millimeter optical film.
05:57
And there were thousands
of reels of this film
06:00
in the archives of the museum
of the Scott Polar Research Institute
06:02
at the University of Cambridge.
06:05
So last summer, I took
a state-of-the-art film scanner
06:07
that was developed for digitizing
Hollywood films and remastering them,
06:09
and two art historians,
06:13
and we went over to England,
put on some gloves
06:14
and archived and digitized
all of that film.
06:16
So that produced two million
high-resolution images
06:19
that my group is now working
on analyzing and processing
06:22
for comparing with contemporary
conditions in the ice sheet.
06:26
And, actually, that scanner --
I found out about it
06:29
from an archivist at the Academy
of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
06:31
So I'd like to thank the Academy --
06:35
(Laughter)
06:37
for making this possible.
06:40
(Laughter)
06:41
And as amazing as it is
06:42
that we can look at what was happening
under the ice sheet 50 years ago,
06:44
this is still just one more snapshot.
06:47
It doesn't give us observations
06:50
of the variation at the annual
or seasonal scale,
06:52
that we know matters.
06:55
There's some progress here, too.
06:57
There are these recent ground-based
radar systems that stay in one spot.
06:59
So you take these radars
and put them on the ice sheet
07:03
and you bury a cache of car batteries.
07:05
And you leave them out there
for months or years at a time,
07:07
and they send a pulse down
into the ice sheet
07:10
every so many minutes or hours.
07:12
So this gives you
continuous observation in time --
07:14
but at one spot.
07:16
So if you compare that imaging to the 2-D
pictures provided by the airplane,
07:18
this is just one vertical line.
07:22
And this is pretty much
where we are as a field right now.
07:25
We can choose between
good spatial coverage
07:28
with airborne radar sounding
07:31
and good temporal coverage in one spot
with ground-based sounding.
07:32
But neither gives us what we really want:
07:36
both at the same time.
07:38
And if we're going to do that,
07:40
we're going to need totally new ways
of observing the ice sheet.
07:42
And ideally, those should be
extremely low-cost
07:45
so that we can take lots
of measurements from lots of sensors.
07:47
Well, for existing radar systems,
07:51
the biggest driver of cost
is the power required
07:54
to transmit the radar signal itself.
07:57
So it’d be great if we were able
to use existing radio systems
08:00
or radio signals
that are in the environment.
08:03
And fortunately, the entire field
of radio astronomy
08:06
is built on the fact that there
are bright radio signals in the sky.
08:09
And a really bright one is our sun.
08:12
So, actually, one of the most exciting
things my group is doing right now
08:15
is trying to use the radio emissions
from the sun as a type of radar signal.
08:18
This is one of our field tests at Big Sur.
08:22
That PVC pipe ziggurat is an antenna stand
some undergrads in my lab built.
08:24
And the idea here
is that we stay out at Big Sur,
08:29
and we watch the sunset
in radio frequencies,
08:32
and we try and detect the reflection
of the sun off the surface of the ocean.
08:34
Now, I know you're thinking,
"There are no glaciers at Big Sur."
08:39
(Laughter)
08:43
And that's true.
08:44
(Laughter)
08:45
But it turns out that detecting
the reflection of the sun
08:46
off the surface of the ocean
08:50
and detecting the reflection
off the bottom of an ice sheet
08:52
are extremely geophysically similar.
08:54
And if this works,
08:56
we should be able to apply the same
measurement principle in Antarctica.
08:57
And this is not
as far-fetched as it seems.
09:01
The seismic industry has gone through
a similar technique-development exercise,
09:03
where they were able to move
from detonating dynamite as a source,
09:07
to using ambient seismic noise
in the environment.
09:10
And defense radars use TV signals
and radio signals all the time,
09:12
so they don't have to transmit
a signal of radar
09:16
and give away their position.
09:19
So what I'm saying is,
this might really work.
09:21
And if it does, we're going to need
extremely low-cost sensors
09:23
so we can deploy networks of hundreds
or thousands of these on an ice sheet
09:27
to do imaging.
09:30
And that's where the technological stars
have really aligned to help us.
09:31
Those earlier radar systems I talked about
09:35
were developed by experienced
engineers over the course of years
09:37
at national facilities
09:41
with expensive specialized equipment.
09:43
But the recent developments
in software-defined radio,
09:45
rapid fabrication and the maker movement,
09:48
make it so that it's possible
for a team of teenagers
09:50
working in my lab over the course
of a handful of months
09:53
to build a prototype radar.
09:56
OK, they're not any teenagers,
they’re Stanford undergrads,
09:58
but the point holds --
10:00
(Laughter)
10:02
that these enabling technologies
are letting us break down the barrier
10:03
between engineers who build instruments
and scientists that use them.
10:07
And by teaching engineering students
to think like earth scientists
10:11
and earth-science students
who can think like engineers,
10:15
my lab is building an environment in which
we can build custom radar sensors
10:18
for each problem at hand,
10:22
that are optimized for low cost
and high performance
10:24
for that problem.
10:27
And that's going to totally change
the way we observe ice sheets.
10:29
Look, the sea level problem and the role
of the cryosphere in sea level rise
10:32
is extremely important
10:38
and will affect the entire world.
10:39
But that is not why I work on it.
10:41
I work on it for the opportunity
to teach and mentor
10:44
extremely brilliant students,
10:47
because I deeply believe
that teams of hypertalented,
10:49
hyperdriven, hyperpassionate young people
10:52
can solve most of the challenges
facing the world,
10:55
and that providing the observations
required to estimate sea level rise
10:58
is just one of the many such problems
they can and will solve.
11:02
Thank you.
11:06
(Applause)
11:07

▲Back to top

About the speaker:

Dustin Schroeder - Radio glaciologist
Dustin Schroeder develops and uses geophysical radar to study Antarctica, Greenland and the icy moons of Jupiter.

Why you should listen

Dustin Schroeder draws on techniques and approaches from defense technologies, telecommunication, resource exploration and radio astronomy to understand the evolution and stability of ice sheets and their contributions to sea level rise. He is an assistant professor of geophysics and (by courtesy) of electrical engineering at Stanford University where he is also an affiliate of the Woods Institute for the Environment. He has participated in three Antarctic field seasons with the ICECAP project and NASA’s Operation Ice Bridge.

Schroeder is a Science Team Member on the Radar for Europa Assessment and Sounding: Ocean to Near-surface (REASON) instrument on NASA's Europa Clipper Mission and the Mini-RF instrument on NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). He is also the Chair of the Earth and Space Sciences Committee for the National Science Olympiad.

More profile about the speaker
Dustin Schroeder | Speaker | TED.com